“Look, that’s weird,” says Marcel. He sees three boys walking in from the outside at Schiphol Plaza. At the revolving door they shake hands, saying goodbye. But now they continue together. “Why would you do that?” They walk to a board with departure times, barely glancing at it. Then go to the NS ticket machines. “Let’s see what they’re going to do there.”
Marcel moves right behind the group, annoyingly close, but the boys take no notice. Marcel returns after a few minutes. “They are German and bought a ticket to Amsterdam Central. Then they have to go to track 1.” They do.
“The fact that something strikes me does not always mean that something is wrong,” says Marcel. Anyone who sees him walking thinks he is an ordinary traveller, if you see him walking at all, because he does not exactly stand out. Blue jacket, orange hoodie, jeans, black shoulder bag. Marcel works for team OOG, the appropriate abbreviation for observation and support group of the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee at Schiphol. Among other things, the team tries to prevent thefts and catch thieves by the collar.
He does not want to say how many colleagues are currently working. “You shouldn’t make people wiser than they are.” He is in contact with those colleagues through an almost invisible earpiece – only if you know you can see the skin-colored earpiece. Sometimes he suddenly seems to be talking to himself, only to turn back to his company: “Here I am again.”
Is he wearing a bulletproof vest? “Yes, I’m actually just as equipped as the uniformed service, so with a firearm, handcuffs, pepper spray, etcetera.” Even if you know, nothing to see.
Two Israeli travelers get coffee at a coffee shop on Schiphol Plaza, while their luggage is left behind at a table. Marcel stands between the suitcases and backpacks, the men don’t notice anything. “I can take this with me.” In English he points out the men’s inattention. “Oh, yesyes, thank you.”
It’s pretty amazing how careless people are with their luggage. Several times, Marcel has the opportunity to take wallets, suitcases, bags and even entire luggage carts with him, without the owner noticing. “And if I can do it, so can a crook.”
Fill the suitcase
There is therefore a lot of stealing at Schiphol. In 2022, there were 454 reports of shoplifting, 112 of luggage theft and 57 of pickpocketing. The total number of reports of theft-related cases is 1230. Not as many as in 2019 (1572 reports), but considerably more than in corona years 2020 and 2021 (725 and 646 reports).
It regularly involves mobile banditry, a well-known phenomenon in the Schengen area. Professional criminal organizations send people out to steal in other countries. “They get an empty suitcase with the assignment: just fill it up,” says Marcel. “Or they even steal the suitcase first and then stuff it with perfumes, mobile phones; everything expensive and small.”
He experienced one of the most memorable moments during his first arrest. “I was standing next to someone who was shamelessly loading his bag in a store.” Marcel makes sliding movements with his arm. “Then you think for a moment: wow, do you really not see me?”
In mid-February, the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee itself made the news: the court in The Hague ruled that ethnic profiling by the organization is no longer allowed. What does that mean for Marcel? “Nothing! I never did that anyway. You can’t tell by the color of someone’s skin if someone is going to steal. Everyone steals.” Mainly men, by the way.
Marcel pays attention to deviant behaviour. “To know what is deviant, you first have to know what the norm is and that varies from day to day.” For example, it is relatively quiet this morning, outside it is not warm. “That already makes people less worked up. And it’s early, so there’s no alcohol in it yet.” Then, do people do logical things? “If someone first looks at a departure board for a long time and then walks to the arrivals hall, it doesn’t make sense, although there may of course be an explanation for this.”
Marcel is not going to check that himself, then his cover would disappear. His colleagues in uniform address that person. “Sometimes you see them leave immediately afterwards by train. Then you know; they feel caught.” Not that you immediately get rid of the Marechaussee when you take the train. “My colleagues recently followed someone to Rotterdam Central, they suspected it was a known pickpocket.” That turned out to be true, so the man was arrested in Rotterdam.
Marcel has been doing this work for four years now, before that he worked in Den Helder and the Caribbean, among other places – always in uniform. “The biggest difference is that people don’t look at me anymore.” This was also preceded by some training in ‘non-police behaviour’.
The upright posture, the wide-legged standing; this authoritative attitude had to be completely unlearned. Some time ago, Marcel was talking to two other colleagues in civilian clothes. “A boy walked by and said, ‘Good afternoon cops!’ That’s sour.” That’s why Marcel tries to look as non-cop as possible, by not shaving for a few days, for example.
Schiphol Plaza, the departure and arrival halls, the area in front of the door, the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel, even the part of the parking garage full of expensive rental cars; every corner has been looked at. “I walk 15,000 steps a day, but this work is especially mentally demanding. You are constantly on,” says Marcel.
Fortunately, there is plenty of time to ‘have a cup of coffee and chill’. That’s exactly what he’s going to do now. “Too bad we didn’t see a red-handed. You can’t always throw a six, can you?”
At the request of the interviewee, the name Marcel has been changed.
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